Wednesday, April 09, 2008

How to say No to NREGA - lessons from the district offices

3rd April 2008

A little background to today's blog – as I had mentioned earlier, the December dharna had ended with the DM's order to set up an enquiry committee to look into the matter of unemployment allowance. The committee had submitted its initial report with a list of eligible receipients on March 14th. Unfortunately for the cause, the DM had not mentioned in his order that the final calculation of payments be done. According to NREGA rules, unemployment allowance is to be paid only to the head of household after calculating how many hours all members of that household have worked.

Without this accounting, the report is incomplete and therefore the committee was waiting for the DM to issue the order. When Richa went to visit him after submitting the initial report, the DM was making noises about setting up a separate committee to make the financial determinations and decide who was to blame for the earlier notice that said there were no eligible recipients. Richa was upset – while the latter issue is a department matter and could be decided by another committee, the former issue is very much under the purview of the enquiry committee. She protested and decided to bring along more SKMS members. The next day, almost 60 people turned up and entered the DM's office. The DM then promised to issue the order for the enquiry committee, but asked for a little time for the end-of-financial-year activities. So the matter was tabled till early April.

On Wednesday, Sharmaji visited the DM and was informed that the CDO would be signing the order. He let Richa know that evening. This news was highly upsetting – the earlier CDO was the one who had issued the notice that was challenged by SKMS. He had also been intractable in negotiations and stories of his corruption were rampant in Sitapur – apparently 2% was his cut for a signature! Only because of the DM were they able to achieve this much, so why was he shrugging off this last bit of responsibility?

This was the setting for Thursday's shenanigans...

10:45 am: We set off for Vikas Bhavan in Sharmaji's car. Sharmaji and Richa strategize on how to tackle this twist in events.

11 am: There aren't many people in the DM's office when we arrive – apparently it is early in the day yet. The DM is wearing a neck brace and looks quite beat down. We sit there for about 5 minutes and he presents one hell of a blank face – who knows what he is thinking! All Richa and Sharmaji manage to get out of him is 'CDO sign kar denge.' and 'Woh implementing officer hai' – the CDO will sign the order and he is the implementing officer. Conveniently, no mention of when he will sign the order!

11:10 am: After exchanging niceties with the CDO's stenographer (which includes cursing all corrupt officials to high hell), we enter the CDO's office. The current CDO was given his new posting on 5th March and arrived on 14th March. All his replies and body language reflect his guardedness in his new position. And of course he must have heard that SKMS was largely responsible for the removal of the previous CDO! He throws out a few sentences about how BDOs and Pradhans were unhappy with the report and how could he come out with an order that directly contradicts his predecessor. Richa and Sharmaji counter that the previous CDO did agree to the setting up of the enquiry committee and that the new order was just a minor one. At this point, he calls in the DDO and the atmosphere immediately changes.

Whether or not the DDO is villainous, he fits the role to a tee. Gutkha chewing and spitting is part of his repertoire as is, atleast in this situation, throwing out taunts and statements calculated to inflame. Among the many things he says: why did you submit an incomplete report, we have many demands on our time and haven't read your report, we have to take the side of justice. When Richa retorts that he was given the responsibility of this post because he was capable and the government provides him conveniences to help him do his work, he replies, “Aap ke paas bhi kam suvidhaayein nahin hain” - you don't have any less conveniences.

The volume of the people in the room has gone up while the CDO sits calmly watching the proceedings and occasionally mediating. Finally, he says and the DDO concurs that the letter will be available. We get up to leave after Richa promises to continue the discussion with the DDO in his office.

11:45 am: We step out of the CDO's office and into the main compound of Vikas Bhavan. Richa shows me the places of interest during the dharna – where they cooked, where they slept, where the people on a hunger strike sat etc. In the meantime, she has been fielding calls from a villager and we run into him. This man is from a Scheduled Caste and has come to collect some money he is eligible to receive for his daughter's wedding. The officials have been running him from pillar to post for the last 15 days – finally telling him his form was lost although there was a record of it in their register. He has come to ask if Richa or Sharmaji have the copy of the form that he remembered handing to them. They promise to look for it and also to talk to the officials upstairs.

12:30 pm: After a tea break and some discussion, we head back to Vikas Bhavan and to the DDO's office. A number of Block Development Officers (BDOs) are there and from the sound of things, they have been discussing ways to counter the enquiry committee's report. The backhanded compliments from the DDO continue - “You are quite capable, Richa-ji, you just need to go in the right direction.” The BDOs play the role of naysayers – 'explaining' that the committee formation was not mentioned in NREGA and is therefore unconstitutional, that there is no provision to cancel job cards so a lot of dud cards susceptible to misuse are floating around, that the Center and State are not allocating sufficient funds for NREGA – 'How are we supposed to pay all those labourers?', that there is no work left to do in the villages (ha ha ha!) etc. The chorus of excuses go on for quite a while – we try to counter whenever possible. I have joined the multiple discussions by this time – one can only keep quiet for so long! The DDO, on finding out that I have come to learn from SKMS says, “Arre, what will you learn from her – I will tell you. Go to a village, get 50 workers together and file an application for work. Then all of you disappear for 20 days and come back demanding an unemployment allowance!” I stare at him for a few seconds before delivering a weak reply – got to build on my rudimentary debating skills. Finally, Richa delivers her rebuke to the DDO and we leave the office while exchanging niceties as well.

We then go upstairs to deal with the villager's issue – Sharmaji talks to a few people and gets the ball rolling. We have told the CDO that we'd be back at 4 pm to get the letter, so decide to head home in the interim. As we are leaving the compound at 1:30 pm, the CDO and DDO depart with their respective entourages for lunch. Richa talks about how during the dharna, the BDOs and Pradhans had been called to Vikas Bhavan - their jeeps along with 'gunners' waited outside and that added to the tension at the time. “There were numerous times when we felt that, yes, today there will be a lathi charge.”

3:45 pm: After lunch and a break (for me – Richa has been on the phone nonstop), we return to Vikas Bhavan to find out that the letter has been typed and is just awaiting the CDO's signature! In the interim, we go up to ascertain the progress on the villager's form. We learn that the form hadn't been lost but had been rejected because, in a couple of places, there was overwriting due to a pen running out of ink! Not due to illegibility or inaccurate information but because a few words had been overwritten! Richa and Sharmaji cannot move the process forward so they tell the villager to wait a few days before setting out again, in which time they would try to resolve the issue. Talking to him later, I learn that he takes a tempo for a few kilometres (as he put it – 8 'kos') and then has to walk 8 km to get to his village. I wonder if it is really worth it in economical terms to travel this distance twice every day. Further, as he puts it, he still wouldn't have been able to get this far in his work if not for Sharmaji or Richa speaking on his behalf. When we talk about services and funds available in the rural sector, how many of us think about the access issue? In cities, it is hard enough to get things done in government offices – add a hundred rupees or more and a few days spent traveling to the equation and then how many people would continue this minor struggle? This villager was able to manage because he has adult sons taking care of the harvest at home.

4 pm: We learn that the CDO has still not returned since leaving at 1:30 pm – quite a long lunch he is having! Richa sits down on the bench outside his office and states that we are not leaving here until a copy of the letter reaches us. We chat with whoever passes by – a lot of people come to pay their respects to Richa and tell her how wonderful the December dharna had been. Some of them seem to have just enjoyed the spectacle but others express genuine support.

5 pm: It seems that the CDO left his house 45 minutes ago. It takes just takes 5 minutes to get to Vikas Bhavan. Some are saying that he has left for Lucknow – others that he is at the DM's bungalow. Sharmaji comes back and says that there is no point waiting – the CDO has gone for a doctor's appointment to Lucknow and won't be back today. The good fortune of Sitapur is that it is close to Lucknow, the state capital, so has good access to the corridors of power. The bad fortune of Sitapur is that it is close to Lucknow – officials go there at a moment's notice and many commute from Lucknow as well. Hard to get access to your local official when he is 2 ½ hours away!

So that was the story of my Thursday. It might be a familiar tale to quite a few of you – I remember a story in our Hindi reader about a soul hiding in his pension file still trying to get it released after his death! But observing the games and tricks played by Vikas Bhavan was a novel experience for me and so I've written out this long entry. Hope you've experienced atleast a fraction of both the entertainment and frustration I derived in watching this drama.

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